Loyola University School of Law, JD 2021
On September 16, The Big Ten conference announced the reversal of the decision to postpone fall sports and will resume football the week of Oct. 23rd. On that same day, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced elementary and high school football teams will still not return for the fall. With football being a contact sport, the risk of spreading COVID-19 is very high. There are hopes for Illinois high school football to return in the spring but as of now, there are not enough resources to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and local authorities’ guidelines.
Illinois elementary and high schools
During July 2020, the Illinois Department of Health (“IDPH”) added new restrictions for recreational sports for both youth and adults that began in August. Governor J.B. Pritzker announced during a coronavirus briefing that due to the new restrictions, the state will be “restricting youth and adult recreational organized sports,” including school-based sports, which started August 15th. Under the new guidance, each sport was categorized into three risk levels: high, medium, and low. There were also levels of play established for the various risk groups. Football was categorized as high risk given the nature of being a contact sport. The high-risk sports are currently able to play at Level 1 which are no-contact practices and trainings only. These guidelines are more strict than neighboring states, as Illinois is one of few states in the Midwest who will not have high school football at least during the fall.
Given Governor Pritzker’s announcement and IDPH’s guidelines, the Illinois High School Association (“ISHA”) released its own set of guidelines on sports returning for the fall and others postponed for the spring. ISHA has decided to move higher-risk sports such as football, volleyball and soccer to the spring. Lower-risk sports such as golf, tennis, cross country, and swimming will begin on schedule in compliance with the COVID-19 guidelines Pritzker announced in July. Fall sports will have shorter seasons and operate in groups of fifty or less where multiple groups are distanced a minimum of 30 ft. apart. Any sports with spectator and group gatherings are subject to IDPH guidelines during that time. The winter and spring sports are subject to the same restrictions.
Big Ten reversal
The Big Ten conference’s presidents and chancellors unanimously voted to resume competition the weekend of October 24th. Each team will attempt to play eight games in eight weeks, leaving no wiggle room during the coronavirus pandemic before the Big Ten championship game on December 19th. The Big Ten initially postponed its fall sports until the spring in August but just several weeks later has changed its decision. At that time, the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus led to the decision. The Big Ten will offer a rapid testing program on all fourteen campuses a part of the sports conference starting September 30th. Test results will be completed and recorded prior to each practice and game. Any players who test positive for COVID-19 must wait at least 21 days to return to competition, as they will undergo “comprehensive cardiac testing” before being cleared to play by a cardiologist designated by each university. A team must pause competitions and practice for seven days if its positivity rate or the population’s positivity rates exceed a certain percentage. The conference’s COVID-19 testing protocol will be very expensive, but it will provide the highest chance of all teams making it to the end of their seasons. The Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors ultimately control the decision to resume the football season. The IDPH Sports Safety Guidance does not apply to professional sports leagues or college division level sports.
Why Illinois will not reverse football restrictions
Due to the lack of widespread safety protocols and limited COVID-19 testing capacity, Governor J.B. Pritzker stands firm in his decision to postpone football and other fall sports. Despite the push back from parents and athletes, Governor Pritzker and IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike noted that many elementary and high schools do not have the same resources that university leagues do to provide athletes with that daily testing and lessen the potential spread of the virus. Elementary and high schools must still comply with the IDPH guidelines. Without extensive testing protocols it is just not possible to bring football back this fall.
Sports seasons will be very different this school year and some sports competitions may not occur. Although the Big Ten conference was able to vote for a reversal of their prior postponing decision. Illinois elementary and high school football will not occur during the fall. The ISHA has pushed some of the spring sports to the fall and as of now has postponed football to comply with the IDPH and Governor Pritzker’s guidelines. Despite the disappointing news, Governor Pritzker made it known that this is within the best interest of the children and communities around Illinois.